One of the most recent and notable events in U.S. hemp history is its legalization via the 2018 Farm Bill. Now, federally legal hemp is defined as any cannabis plant containing no more than 0.3% tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the plant’s main psychoactive compound.
While hemp’s legal standing has changed for the better, the United States’ longstanding relationship with the plant is marked by a series of ups and downs. At its high points, hemp was lauded as a lucrative and beneficial crop; conversely, it has been demonized and even classified as an illicit substance in more recent times.
Hemp as a Foundational Crop
The earliest settlers valued hemp’s versatility and ease of growth in the New World. In the early 1600s, English settlers in Jamestown began cultivating hemp. They primarily used the plant to manufacture lamp fuel, paper, rope, sails, and clothing, among other textiles. Later in the 1700s, various American colonies took their love of hemp one step further, enacting laws mandating that farmers grow the crop. Hemp was even used as legal currency in the colonies of Maryland, Pennsylvania, and Virginia.
In 1776, both the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence were drafted on hemp paper. While the official documents themselves were written on parchment derived from animal skin, their writers penned the preliminary drafts on hemp paper due to its widespread availability at the time.
Hemp found its way into other important products that same year. Led by George Washington, the continental army wore clothing made from hemp due to its durability. In addition, the U.S.S. Constitution was constructed using over 120 pounds of hemp for its sails, ropes, and lining.
Several of the founding fathers vocalized their support of hemp in various documents. For example, due to its lucrative economic value, George Washington advocated for hemp’s cultivation in one of his articles. In addition, Thomas Jefferson himself grew hemp and composed a number of publications on hemp growing practices. He also patented a hemp thrashing machine that separates the seeds from the stalks.
Washington and Jefferson weren’t the only presidential figures to find a practical use for hemp. Later in the mid-1800s, America’s 16th president Abraham Lincoln fueled his household lamps with hemp seed oil. Hemp a regular household textile by this time, the 1850 census counted more than 8,000 hemp farms of 2,000 acres or more across the nation.
20th Century Perspectives
From America’s early roots to the turn of the century, hemp wasn’t just viewed positively: it was exalted for its versatility, durability, and economic prosperity. This outlook began its unfortunate downward trend in the 20th century.
In 1916, a landmark publication from the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) found that, relative to trees, hemp produces about four times more paper per acre. However, in the mid-to-late ‘30s, hemp’s legal standing began to sour with the rise of anti-hemp and anti-marijuana propaganda such as the 1936 film Reefer Madness. In a legislative effort to curb hemp production, the Marijuana Tax Act of 1937 placed a heavy tax on all cannabis sales, including hemp. The act also passed strict licensing restrictions on farmers.
Despite the growing opposition towards hemp, many rallied in favor of the plant. In 1938, Popular Mechanics, a technology-centered magazine, published an article about hemp’s potential uses. It found that hemp can be used in about 25,000 different products. Henry Ford also launched a hemp-crafted automobile that was believed to be significantly stronger than similar vehicles made from steel.
Shortly after the U.S. entered World War II, the USDA implemented the Hemp for Victory program seeing as the nation could no longer source its hemp from Asian countries such as Japan or the Philippines. During this time, cultivators produced over 150,000 acres of hemp for the war effort.
Unfortunately, after the Second World War ended, the war on hemp reemerged stronger than ever and farmers planted the last commercial hemp crop in Wisconsin in 1957. Matters only worsened when the 1970 Controlled Substances Act classified all forms of cannabis (including hemp) as Schedule I illicit substances.
1998 marked a renewed interest in hemp with the legalization of imported hemp oil and hemp seed. In 1999, Hawaii, Minnesota, and North Dakota legalized industrial hemp cultivation at the state level. The seeds of change only grew from here.
Hemp and the 21st Century
Hemp saw a big win in 2004 when the Hemp Industries Association built a sizeable case against the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA). Now the sale of hemp food and body care products was protected under the Ninth Circuit Court decision. Three years later in 2007, two North Dakota farmers were granted the first hemp cultivation licenses in 50 years.
The passing of the 2014 Farm Bill only continued the upward trend for hemp, permitting research institutions to pilot hemp farming programs. In 2015, the Industrial Hemp Farming Act was introduced to the House and the Senate. The legislation called for a legal distinction between hemp and marijuana, ultimately aiming for the federal legalization of hemp.
In 2018, the new Farm Bill passed, marking one of the greatest wins for hemp. With its enactment, hemp was effectively removed from the DEA’s list of controlled substances, and hemp-derived cannabidiol (CBD) was officially legalized.
Hemp is currently legal in the United States, and its popularity and mainstream appeal only continues to grow. While the hemp industry has certainly faced a number of challenges and turbulent times, the future appears full of innumerable possibilities. We hope to see hemp’s legal status continue to shift for the better, especially with the Farm Bill’s upcoming renewal this year in 2023!